THE DANGERS OF SAFETY: Why Focusing on Car Accidents May Hurt Our Health

November 18, 2014

Everyone officially puts “safety first.” Everyone wants to prevent accidents. Car crashes are treated as lead stories on TV news – the images are horrific and we all fear our vulnerability. But, in fact, our roads are safer than ever. In 1956, when Interstate construction began, the national fatality rate was 6.05 per 100 million Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT). By 2011, the fatality rate had dropped to 0.8 per 100 million VMT on the Interstate and 1.1 (the lowest ever recorded) nationwide, even though about 85% of people including those in metro areas, still get to work by car. (Massachusetts has the nation’s lowest fatality rate, 0.62!)

Studies have shown, and the Traffic Engineering Profession has internalized, that highway accidents go down when there are wide lanes, gentle curves, no sight-line obstructing hills, limited entering/exiting locations with long ramps, no visual distractions other than large and uniform directional signage, and the absence of slower or more vulnerable traffic.   The Interstate is safest when it is “error tolerant” and forgiving of driver distraction. (Other contributors along the same lines: slide-resistant pavement, break-away sign and light poles, and better guardrails.

But the reality is that safety lapses aren’t the biggest transportation-related source of injury. In fact, putting too much emphasis on preventing car crashes can make non-highway streets more dangerous – not only for pedestrians and cyclists but also for car occupants! Car accidents cause half as many deaths and several multiples fewer health problems than transportation-caused air, water, and noise pollution.   The amount of paved land in our cities makes us more vulnerable to climate change, rising temperatures, and floods while housing sprawl makes us less resilient in terms of agriculture and disaster-recovery.   Most subtly, life in and around automobiles changes the way we relate to our neighbors and friends, reducing our collective social capital and our individual life style satisfaction.

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ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION: Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

November 11, 2014

As our nation has painfully learned over the past fifty years from the destructive practices of the Interstate’s old scorched-earth invasion, focusing a transportation planning process on the need to satisfy car traffic trends is dangerous. (Full disclosure: I live in a house that was supposed to be ripped down for construction of the stopped-at-the-last-minute Inner Belt highway.) It’s a bit like the stories about the surgeon who announces that the operation was a success although unfortunately the patient died. Other than in romantic road movies, mobility is not a goal in itself. We move in order to accomplish something. Transportation is simply a means to an end.

So we in the Commonwealth can be proud that MassDOT’s 2006 Highway Design Guide was a national leader in its inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and its insistence on Context Sensitive approaches – designing a road starting “from the outside” of the right-of-way then “working inwards” to the road itself, meaning taking into account both the nature of its surroundings and the space needed for sidewalks and bicycle facilities.   The even more assertive subsequent (and also nationally admired) policies – the Healthy Transportation Compact and Directive, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction goals and GreenDOT program, the Mode Shift and Transportation Oriented Development Initiatives – all build on the strengths of the Design Guide. These policies recognize that while car travel is and will continue to be a vital part of many people’s daily lives and our state’s economic activity, our future prosperity and well-being depends on our ability to re-balance our lopsidedly car-centric transportation system and investments by putting a lot more attention (and money) into transit, bicycling, and walking facilities.

Of course, we’ve all sworn to ourselves to change an old way of doing something, only to fall back into old patterns soon after.   Going from decision to habit – or from policy to implementation, and then to institutionalized default – requires paying attention, not giving up, and a willingness to correct the inevitable missteps. It requires accepting that transportation design must be used as a tool for moving us towards a desired future rather than simply a reflection of current trends. Which is why what’s happening with MassDOT’s Allston-I-90 Realignment Project, a quarter-billion dollar project creating a major Gateway into Boston and Cambridge, is both heartening and worrisome.

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TRUCKIN’ ON: Reducing the danger of Trucks and other Large Vehicles

October 28, 2014

Trucks are only 4% of vehicles in the United States but cause about 7% of pedestrian fatalities and 11% of cyclist fatalities. The disparity is even higher in urban areas – a London analysis found that the 4% of vehicles that were trucks were involved in nearly 53% of cyclist fatalities. In Boston, 7 out of 9 cyclist fatalities in 2012-13 involved trucks or buses. Many of those deaths were preventable.

Of the pedestrians and cyclists killed by trucks in the US, one-quarter and one-half, respectively, are first hit by the side of the truck, then fall under the rear wheels and are crushed as the vehicle turns. Almost all of those deaths were preventable.

There are a variety of reasons for the deadliness of these interactions: individual behavior, the legal and cultural decision-making context created by law and regulation and public campaigns, the design of roads and intersections, and the nature of the vehicles themselves.  Paying attention to these will help prevent accidents. But no matter how careful we are, some accidents will happen and it is inexcusable to not implement the proven, relatively easy and inexpensive way to reduce the severity of the resulting injuries: putting side-guards on trucks and wheel-guards on buses. It’s time to move.  Continue Reading »

MAKING “COMPETE STREET” OPERATIONAL: MassDOT Actives “Active Streets Certification (and Grant)” Program

August 20, 2014

City after city has found that making their streets safer and friendly for everyone – more walkable, bikeable, transit accessible and “socializable” – makes them more attractive to current and prospective residents and businesses. Not to mention the positive impact on reducing pollution, promoting public health, and dealing with climate change issues. The basic idea of a Complete Street is pretty straightforward: a travel corridor that has specific infrastructure for all modes including cars, bikes, foot, and (if present) buses, trucks, and trolleys. (Although having a multi-use – bike and walk – path alongside a railroad track is now allowed in Massachusetts, this combination is beyond the scope of most Complete Streets policies.)

However, turning this goal into design is complicated. Often, motor-focused traffic engineers continue to prioritize car capacity while including the minimally allowed “amenities” for everything else. Even well-meaning designers have trouble identifying and balancing possible friction points between pedestrians and cyclists. And few, if any, US Transportation Agencies have picked up on the European insight that the best way to relieve urban car and transit congestion is to decisively prioritize bicycling.

While some Complete Streets action occurs on the initiative of individual road designers, a more typical starting point is the adoption of an agency, municipal, or state-wide Complete Streets policy – a signifying event also endorsed by the National Complete Streets Coalition (now part of the national Smart Growth Alliance).

In Massachusetts, several broad coalitions including the ACT Fresh Coalition organized by the Mass Public Health Association and the Transportation for Massachusetts Coalition (T4Mass), pushed for and won Legislative inclusion of a $50 million Complete Streets Certification And Grant Program (H.4046 Acts of 2014) as part of the state’s recent Transportation Bond Bill. (Full disclosure: LivableStreets Alliance is part of ACT Fresh and I sit on the Coalition’s Steering Committee.) Being part of the Bond Bill means that the Administration has the authority to set up the program, but does not imply any requirement that it do so. Given the huge unfunded backlog of maintenance, repair, and new transportation projects it was not totally surprising that MassDOT initially decided to postpone activating this program.

However, in response to urgings from advocates, and in line with its own increasingly progressive policies, MassDOT has just announced that it will craft rules and procedures for the program, and perhaps even distribute “seed funds” this fall, before we all have to start over with the next Governor. Not only does this begin creating a “carrot” that will entice additional municipalities to move forward on this issue, it also positions the program for a quick ramp up under the next Administration.

Building on the National Complete Streets Coalition suggestions, the advocacy coalitions have also made some key recommendations for what criteria should be required for Complete Streets Certification. The recommendations state that while communities that have begun work on Complete Streets through the creation of Guidelines (e.g. Boston’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines, Cambridge’s Vehicle Trip Reduction and Parking Demand Management ordinances) should be recognized and eligible for some funding, it is important that the Certification Program set official adoption by the Board of Selection/City Council of a resolution or policy, by-law, or ordinance as the goal. The policy should, at a minimum, include the following:

> Acknowledgement that all projects on every road in the jurisdiction – whether state- or city-owned – are potential opportunities to include Complete Streets elements and a commitment that every maintenance, repair, full or partial reconstruction, sewer/water or utility work, or new construction/expansion activity implement the policy – including all Private Developments;

>The creation or identification of a municipal body or municipal staff (e.g., working group, task force, official committee, planning staff, transportation staff, etc.) to advise decision makers on implementation;

> Establishment or confirmation of a Review Process for Private Developments to ensure both that interior roads follow Complete Streets guidelines and that new gaps are not created in the area’s bicycle and pedestrian network;

> Provisions for clear and accountable exceptions to the policy;

> Identification and regular updating of information and training on best practices and resources for implementing Complete Streets;

> Base-line mode-share and accident data (particularly for pedestrians and bicyclists) be collected and, along with Complete Street mileage data, regularly shared with MassDOT – most simply by doing counts at specific locations at certain times twice a year for as long as a municipality is receiving funding, especially before and after Complete Streets improvements are done on a street or intersection.

To ensure that less affluent communities or communities with less planning staff capacity could benefit as much as possible from the program, the Legislation requires that at least a third of the funds be awarded to municipalities with a median household income below that Commonwealth’s average. The Coalition builds on that innovative beginning to propose that 10% of the funds be given to municipalities for Phase I work — capacity building to be used primarily for the non-construction type of work. Once an official policy was adopted, the project-ready municipality would be eligible for design and construction-oriented Phase II funds.

The full text of the Coalition’s letter outlining their recommendations follows…

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STABILIZING EQUITABLE COMMUNITIES: Gentrification, Displacement, and Markets

August 13, 2014

It wasn’t long ago, when regional rail-trail conversions were the leading strategy for creating multi-use non-motorized travel corridors, that the biggest opposition came from suburbanites fearing that the bike paths would bring intruders (meaning poor or Black people) into their backyards and lower their property values.   Today, as the action has shifted to our reviving cities, there is opposition from low-income residents worried that the neighborhood improvements they’ve demanded for decades – better transit, bike facilities, parks, street lights, new construction – will attract upscale newcomers, raise property values, and cause displacement.

The fears of the suburbanites were always groundless. But, unfortunately, the fears of inner city people – especially in reviving cities such as Boston, NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco – have a strong basis in fact, especially around transportation facilities – a recent study found that rents go up about $43/month for each 100 meters closer to a station. The working class Davis Square where I once hung out disappeared with the new T stop. Planning for the Green Line extension to Somerville’s Union Square has unleashed property speculation and driven up rents. Smart investors are already gobbling up property along Dorchester’s future Fairmont Line.

THE LIGHTENING ROD EFFECT

It’s not that the streetscape improvements, transit access, bike paths, green space, or public buildings are the real cause of the upscaling. Larger demographic, economic, and historic pressures have built up around certain cities like a gigantic thunderstorm roiling with electric charge. The power surge doesn’t flow everywhere – its starts downtown, along the waterfront or on hilltops, in areas with desirable houses or open space, and where it’s possible to easily get to downtown workplaces without using a car, while at the same time easy to use a car to get out of town. Other places, lacking these amenities or having some negative characteristic (too much crime, too many poor people, too Black) are skipped – nationwide, a recent study found that for every “neighborhood that’s gentrified since 1970, 10 have remained poor and another 12 have slipped into poverty….racial composition did in fact have a significant effect.” In those that did gentrify, what moved a run-down neighborhood on to the hit list, or even transformed an undesirable location into something that upper-income people found attractive, was often new public investment. Sometimes small, sometimes major, these local improvements simply provide a lightning rod for the surrounding energy, focusing attention on a particular place and unleashing the creative destruction of profit-seeking.

The recent move of the better-off back into the city may seem like the impersonal and diffuse working out of personal choices and market dynamics. But markets and choices are shaped by policies. The rightward tilt of politics in recent years, both in the US and internationally, has created escalating inequality giving the upper 20% of our own population and the top 1% of many less stable nations enormous unneeded wealth, which they’re using to buy property – driving up prices in their preferred neighborhoods, pushing the next income layer of renters and buyers into other neighborhoods, and ratcheting up price inflation across the entire housing market.

However, the impact of all this can – must, and can only – be also addressed through public policies and programs. In fact, unless public officials begin implementing ways to create more sustainable conditions for middle-income and lower-income residents, our cities are likely to get strangled by their economic “success” – just as the success of Kendall Square has made it too expensive for new start-ups to locate there. True: given our messed up tax system it is new development and rising property values that provides the funds for physical improvements and urban services.   But it’s also true that a city’s vitality depends not only on its attractiveness to young professionals and rich investors but also, to an extent we seldom acknowledge, on its cultural (meaning ethnic and racial and place-of-birth) diversity and the presence of the rest of the workforce (meaning middle-income and poor families).

MORE IS NOT ENOUGH

Simply building more will not eliminate the pressure on middle and low-income families. In theory, a gargantuan increase in the amount of new housing would create a more fluid and affordable market. Reform of our damagingly old and dysfunctional zoning laws (unfortunately killed in the most recent Legislatative session by real estate lobbyists) and more intelligent mortgage criteria would certainly help. But it would take nearly 30,000 new units over the next six years to merely keep up with current demand, and many more than that to bend the cost curve down – and only 3,200 are on track for completion in the coming year, almost all of which are downtown luxury condos. We simply can’t build our way out of this crisis. In San Francisco, advocates are promoting a ballot initiative requiring at least 30% of new housing to be reserved for middle- and low-income families. Developers say this ignores the financial reality of new construction. Advocates disagree, saying that the limited amount of developable land makes it impossible to satisfy the high-end market, meaning there will never be significant spillover to middle-income or low-income segments.

Given the growing inequality of our society as a whole, if left to itself the real estate market will continue its current tilt towards the highest end of the luxury market, with negative spill-over effects on everyone else. The solution, therefore, is to change the market by changing the context in which it operates, to intervene in the market to change the profits to be made (or not made) for certain types of development, and to reduce or eliminate market pressure on some percentage of our city’s housing.

THERE ARE WAYS

Success requires using the full range of strategies. The city has to help create more housing in ways that protect its long-term affordability – lowering construction costs by using tax-foreclosed and city-owned land, using limited-equity ownership contracts, subsidizing mortgages in ways that translate into partial public ownership, mortgage pools for low-income borrowers, etc. This also requires an expansion of home-ownership training programs and mutual-support groups to strengthen families and communities. For those unable to afford to purchase, we need family-appropriate (e.g. multi-bedroom) scattered site public housing programs that are well designed and well run as well as more rent subsidy programs – some of which can be negotiated with developers seeking development rights or who have been found in violation of building codes (the offer is to avoid criminal prosecution by fixing up a unit and renting it at below-market levels).

Boston is starting to move in the right direction: there are plans to turn nearly 200 vacant lots along the new Fairmont Line into one- to three-family homes with about 400 units, although it’s not clear that the properties’ financing and ownership will be structured in ways that preserve their long-term affordability or just released into the market. In addition, the city has foreclosure-ownership of two huge lots, the old Cote Ford car dealership site in Mattapan and the three-acre former Maxwell box warehouse in Dorchester. Both provide huge opportunity for both local economic development and housing.

And for those who do want to move out of their old neighborhoods, we need much more aggressive state-wide enforcement of anti-discrimination laws as well as more effective “anti-snob zoning” program in the suburbs.

Those of us who favor expanding opportunities for people to walk and bike, want to increase access to green space in every neighborhood, care about the quality of streets, and believe new construction can help create local jobs – we need to expand our focus and demand that public investment walk on two legs: one leg for upgraded facilities and environment, one leg for population stability and support.

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Project Selection Criteria: Public Hearing Testimony

July 29, 2014

The following was submitted to the state Project Selection Advisory Council at their 7/29/14 public hearing in Boston.

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this incredibly important topic. And thank you for all the work that you have already done on this incredibly complicated issue. My name is Steven E. Miller; I’m a senior staff at the Harvard School of Public Health and a member of the state’s Healthy Transportation Compact Advisory Committee. I’m also a founding Board member of LivableStreets Alliance which, as I’m sure you know, is a member of the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition.   My testimony reflects all those identities.

My testimony will address three issues. First, the framing within which we need to address the entire topic of Project Selection Criteria. Second, the specific issue of Regional Equity, which I know has been a vexing theme in your deliberations, along with a quick comment about what projects should be subject to the evaluation process you are beginning to shape. And finally, some thoughts about how to make the criteria categories you are currently using more effective and powerful.

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FROM BETTER TO WORSE ON COMMONWEALTH AVE: City Leaders Need To Step Up For Their Own Policies

July 17, 2014

For a while it was feeling like stodgy Boston was jumping back into the elite group of city’s whose actions around transportation (and its joined-at-the-hip land-use twin) set the pace for the rest of the country. Our environmentally-based Smart Growth policies were state-of-the-art, which became even more valuable as climate-change storms and rising sea levels revealed our coastal vulnerability. After years of letting the state take the lead around transit and roads, Boston leaped ahead on mobility. City Hall, working with advocates, used the political opening created by the Hub On Wheels festival to set up the Boston Bike Program with its rapid rollout of bike lanes, its Roll-It-Forward outreach to low-income families, a visionary Bike Network Plan, and the wonderful Hubway system that is increasingly understood as the “last mile” of our transit system as well as a relief valve for both over-capacity trolleys and car-congested roads. And all this culminated in the cutting-edge Complete Streets Guide that integrated Green, Smart, and Multimodal by both dealing with the safety needs of cars, buses, walkers, and cyclists as well as treating streets as a powerful leverage for improved neighborhood cohesion, safety, and economic development.

It was inspiring; exciting; promising of things to come. It made Boston a national leader and a better place to live.

Which is why it is confusing and frustrating to find that Boston’s transportation agencies are proposing such a backward — and unsafe — set of proposals for Commonwealth Avenue in clear violation of its own policies. Two years ago, before many of the new policies were put in place, the city unveiled their ideas at a 25% design stage meeting. Those proposals were heavily criticized as inadequate or even dangerous by most attendees. After two years of silence, the city has suddenly reissued substantially the same thing and called it a 75% design. They say it’s safer, but the facts say otherwise. It’s upsetting to think that the transportation leadership doesn’t believe in the city’s own vision or follow their own guidelines.

The Walsh Administration needs to focus some attention on the currently overlooked transportation departments. This is a signature project that has to be done right. If it does not fully embody the city’s own exemplary policies we can unfortunately look forward to nasty and protracted project-by-project fights for years to come.

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MOVING BEYOND CAR LEVEL OF SERVICE (LOS): Measurable and Meaningful Criteria for Transportation Investments, Project Designs, and Development Mitigation (revised)

June 30, 2014

Scaled from A to F like an elementary school report card, automobile Level of Service (LOS) metrics are easy to measure and easy to understand. LOS is, essentially, the average amount of delay compared to a “free-flowing” road where everyone is moving at full design-speed – congestion! It is a powerful indicator: it has a direct relationship to the quality of the user experience (the amount of congestion and “lost time”), the environmental impact (longer passage time equals more emissions), and the road infrastructure’s adequacy (the relationship of traffic volume to road capacity) – with the car-industry-pleasing implication that the key to improving LOS is increasing capacity.

For the past half century, when the auto industry was driving national economic growth, improving car LOS was seen not only as a transportation priority but as the key to local prosperity and the “good life” for upwardly mobile citizens. Raising LOS was a required goal of nearly every transportation investment and project design. Not surprisingly, millions of dollars of federal Interstate Highway research has been poured into figuring out how various road features raise or lower LOS – most of which boil down to getting rid of anything that might prevent cars from continuously going full speed such as sharp turns, adjacent distractions, crosswalks, bike lanes, and buses.

But at some point this strategy imploded as the “if you build it they will come” dynamic repeatedly filled every new road, undermining both commerce and personal life.

Today, most of us have a more nuanced view of car traffic and a broader understanding of what improves our quality of life. Moving as many cars as fast as possible is no longer the highest priority for most of us. We’ve learned that car traffic can also negatively affect a broad range of policy issues, from environmental and climate protection to community integration and neighborhood equity, from public health and safety to land use and conservation, from business growth to job distribution, and more.

But what can replace LOS? We don’t need something perfect, just something better than what we’ve got. The need to go beyond LOS when deciding between possible investments and for evaluating transportation system designs has become part of the national transportation policy discussion. Many groups have begun working on these questions: people within the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), Association of Pedestrian and Bicycling Professionals (APBP), the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the American Public Health Association’s Transportation Group (APHA), the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and others. Congress wrote in a requirement for “performance evaluation” into the most recent federal Transportation Funding Act, MAP-21. However, the regulations emerging from the Federal Highway Administration seem to focus on traditional traffic safety issues rather than picking up the policy themes of mode-change announced by the past two Transportation Secretaries.

This broadening of the decision-making and evaluative horizon makes life complicated for Transportation Planners. A senior MassDOT Engineer recently complained that the members of the Advisory Task Force for the I-90 Allston Interchange project were asking him to incorporate too many factors, saying that “we are not in the business of community development; we build roads.” But roads are a key part of community development – his comment, while technically correct, is indicative of the degree to which we’ve not yet found effective ways to seamlessly connect our policies, our transportation investment decision-making, our road design criteria, and our transportation system evaluations.

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FREE AND EASY: Open Ended Bicycling

June 19, 2014

Every year I am part of a group that does a one-day ride from Boston to Provincetown, about 146 miles. We’ve done it in blazing heat and nor’easter rainstorms – that was the year we later realized that each of us was secretly hoping our bike would fail so we’d have an excuse to drop out and go home. But we support each other and always make it. Of course, we end up exhausted. But we’ve learned that stopping every 15 or so miles for a snack and rest allows everyone to pull through. It’s always a great adventure and earns us great story-telling rights for months afterwards.

This year, the weather was almost perfect. Cool enough. Sunny enough. The scenery along the Claire Saltonstall Bikeway was, as always, mostly beautiful, although the hundreds of cracks already appearing in the newly repaved sections of the Cape Cod Rail Trail were a depressing surprise. And despite my lack of preparation and anticipatory worries I was astonished to feel stronger for longer than in previous years. At first I thought it was me – maybe I was in better shape than I imagined – but then I realized that the difference was the lack of wind! Pushing into a 10 or 15 mph headwind for endless miles is harder than climbing hills.

I love the feeling of being out in the world, gliding through on my bike, feeling my body work, chatting with friends, feeling part of a group. But best of all is the vacation feeling of not having anything to do but what I’m doing.   We were riding. There were no deadlines. The day was ours. It was free time.

When not chatting, a long bike ride is a good time to think. My pleasure reminded me of weekends when I’ve got a list of non-essential tasks to do. I wander from one to the next as my interest and energy flow, never worrying about how far I get although almost always finding that I’ve finished most of it by beer-time at the end of the day.

Or the feeling I used to get when (a long time ago) I hitch-hiked across the US and Europe. It was a letting go of control, an accepting of whatever came along, a naïve belief in my own ability to handle anything and in the benign nature of the universe, a welcoming of unknown adventure.

We seemed to have jumped from an enduring winter through a few days of spring directly into early summer. Clean off your bike. Don’t be afraid of going longer than you think you can. (Being with others helps!) Have fun. Feel free.

Thanks to this year’s crew: Eric, David, Bang, Jackie, Mark, Monica, Andrew, Meir

DANGER FROM BELOW: Our Leaky Gas Pipe Infrastructure

June 11, 2014

It’s bad enough that rain-water run-off from our streets takes oil-derived toxins, metal and synthetic dust into our soil then into our groundwater and rivers.   But it also turns out that human-injected poisons seep up from below our roads, destroying plant life, killing soil, and creating explosive danger on the surface as well. The volatile poison is natural gas.  And local groups are just beginning to measure its unwanted presence.

So long as it stays in the mind-bogglingly large network of gas pipelines running down almost all our streets to business and residential locations, natural gas is a much better fuel than coal or oil or gasoline. But it’s a dangerous amendment to the soil and the air above it if it leaks out. And it is leaking – a lot, as we’re just beginning to discover. There are more than 3,300 natural gas leaks in Boston and at least 20,000 across the state, releasing between eight and twelve billion cubic feet of natural gas each year.

OLD PIPES

Here in the Northeast, the major problem is the age of the pipe system. At least 17% of NSTAR’s pipes, for example, are over a half-century old and made of cast iron which, like a cast iron pot left outside, have rusted into a fragile skeleton. A big bang on the street above from a truck or other object, a vibration running along the pipe due to an explosion or even from distant repair work, the impact of frost heaves or a minor shifting of the ground – any kind of jostling could create a crack, sometimes small but often large enough for gas to begin leaking.

If enough gas seeps to the surface into a building it doesn’t take much of a spark to send it up. This year, seven people died in a Harlem, NYC gas disaster. A month later twelve people were hurt in Dorchester from a gas-caused house explosion. There have been similar explosions in Springfield, Gloucester, Fitchburg, Somerset, and Winthrop – with more coming.

But even if the gas doesn’t destroy our homes, and lives, it can damage our environment. Seeping gas kills roots – of trees, shrubs, and plants. Brookline, which is one of the first cities to begin investigating the problem, estimates that over a million dollars in tree damage has already occurred in their community. It’s likely that other cities have similar although as yet undiagnosed problems.

CLIMATE CHANGE

And when the gas gets up to the air it continues its dirty work – natural gas is methane which has a greenhouse warming effect up to 34 times more than CO2.   There are a lot of jokes about cow flatulence and climate change; natural gas is a much more abundant source! In Cambridge, gas leaks are estimated to have the equivalent climate change impact of the total annual emissions of nearly a third of all the cars registered in the city.

The infuriating aspect of the entire situation is that we, the region’s natural gas consumers, pay for all the lost gas and the dead trees and eventually for the climate destabilization. The cost of the “lost” gas is factored into our utility bills, a “surcharge” estimated by the Conservation Law Foundation to be about $38 million a year in Massachusetts alone. It is reflected in the high cost of doing business in our state. And it is our property tax that pays for the trees and plants that die. Not to mention the human cost of fires and explosions.

Utility and gas transmission companies are only required to fix leaks that are “potentially explosive.”   However, according to Massachusetts State Representative Lori Ehrlich, utilities would earn back the cost of fixing the average leak in less than 3 years. The companies know where the leaks are located – their “sniffer trucks” drive up and down as many streets as they can. But under current regulations they have no incentive to front the money in the first place.

ACTION

Community “HEET” groups have begun bringing the situation to light. First, starting in Somerville and Cambridge, they are using a precision methane analyzer to find the leaks and map their location. Second, the groups are mobilizing citizens to report and demand action on the worst leaks – just fixing the top ten will save ratepayers an estimated $45,000 per year and prevent the carbon equivalent of 500 passenger cars from hitting the atmosphere.

Even though we are most aware of the lousy pavement conditions on top of the road, sometimes it’s what’s under the street that counts. There are a variety of bills relating to this issue now pending in the Legislature. Get in touch with HEET at (info@HEETma.org) and find out what you can do to demand action!

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Thanks to Audrey Schulman for feedback on an earlier draft.

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Related previous posts:

> LIVABILITY, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND MOVING AROUND: A Healthy Society Requires Healthy People

> THE ADVOCATES DILEMA: When The Need for Action is Immediate But the Pace of Change is Slow

> ZONING REFORM: Unlocking Investment in Transportation, Health, and Livable Communities

 

 
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